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Shoveling snow causes heart attacks: Convenient urban myth or fact?

If you've lived in Minnesota for any length of time, you've heard about someone having a heart attack while shoveling snow. It may even be the excuse your significant other has been using to avoid helping dig out after a snow storm. Is it just an urban myth, or can shoveling actually increase the risk of heart attack? The short answer is yes, for some people, it can.

As most Minnesotans know, shoveling snow is quite a workout. The unique scooping-lifting-throwing motion engages muscle groups in both the upper and lower body. Lifting and throwing heavy loads of snow requires a level of effort that can quickly raise your blood pressure. 

A healthy person's heart responds by beating faster and supplying the heart with extra oxygen. In individuals with heart disease, blockages in the coronary vessels can restrict blood flow, preventing the heart from getting the oxygen it needs. Since the heart muscle is highly dependent upon oxygen to work properly, if we decrease oxygen too much, the heart can experience arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) or heart attack. 

If you have any of these risk factors, talk with your doctor before tackling the snow in your driveway.

  • Prior heart attack or known heart disease
  • High blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Smoker
  • Inactive, sedentary lifestyle
  • Overweight

Shoveling is sudden, intense exercise. If you think you're healthy enough to shovel snow, follow these tips to reduce risk of heart attack.

  • If this is your first real exercise in months, go very slow and take lots of breaks.
  • Avoid shoveling right after you wake up, as a high percentage of heart attacks occur early in the morning.
  • Don't shovel right after a heavy meal.
  • Warm up gradually for at least 5-10 minutes.
  • Keep breathing evenly; don't hold your breath as you lift snow.
  • Use a small shovel, or scoop smaller amounts of snow.
  • When you're done, walk it off to cool down.

Warning signs of a heart attack include lightheadedness, shortness of breath, a tightness or burning in the chest, neck, arms or back. Women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some other symptoms, such as nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. If you experience any of these symptoms while shoveling snow—or anytime—call 911.


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